Reimagining the Civic Commons


Civic Futures

This and the other images below are stills from A Possible Philadelphia. Each depicts the Civic Commons writ large in daily life across the city.

By Bryan Boyer

Get a group of innovative people together from a diverse set of cities and it’s almost certain that no matter how different their respective hometowns may be, they will agree on one thing: opaque bureaucracies, NIMBYism, and other forms of inertia threaten to consume optimism about the future. Perhaps this explains the interest among urbanists in all things tactical. It’s hard to worry about grand plans when pilots and pop-ups are the only things that can be realized. But what happens when the pilot is a success? What happens when a new idea and a successful experiment unlock the potential for action at a much larger scale?

In 2015, when Reimagining the Civic Commons was still taking shape, we at Dash Marshall were asked to develop a vision of how the city of Philadelphia might feel if the Civic Commons “won” and became the animating spirit for public spaces and public goods across the city. The result is A Possible Philadelphia, a short film set in the near future.

Breaking Down Then Building Up

We expanded the notion of the Civic Commons from spaces to all of the things owned in common or paid for by the city—every tool, truck, tree bed, and more. The starting point for this was asking ourselves what would happen if we thought of institutions as bundles of ‘micro-assets’ instead of singular entities. In the 20th century it was natural to think of an institution such as “school” as a monolithic thing, but for the civic commons we dissected the idea of school into its constituent elements.

For each of the pieces we imagined ways they might be made available to the people of Philadelphia to be recombined and repurposed. The total effect is to envision civic assets as a platform that empowers citizens to live, play, learn, and work in ways that are meaningful to them, even if those meaningful uses were not predicted in advance. We go into more depth on our background thinking in the article America Loves an Underdog on

Illustration: Ryan Thacker of Might, Could

Experiences that Imply Systems

Vignettes in the film bring to life the individual benefits of the Civic Commons. They show, for instance, how visitors to the park might find out about other things going on nearby, thereby introducing them to new experiences while increasing social mixing, or why a running trail might benefit from making room for small allotment gardens. As much as possible these are shown as tangible experiences.

But the city is about “we,” not “me,” so for each of the urban experiences in the film we also show glimpses of the systems that would enable this to happen at scale. Innovative uses and spaces are fun to dream up, but civic futures come to life when individual benefits are enabled by systems that work at urban scale. Incentives, contract templates, and job descriptions play an unusually glamorous role in A Possible Philadelphia because these and other ‘invisibles’ are where the real work of urban innovation happens.

What happens to devices like parking ticket printers after their systems are upgraded? What if those were repurposed to help park staff provide customized greetings to park visitors?

Working Backwards

A Possible Philadelphia is an example of “jumping to the end,” as noted designer Matt Jones puts it. At Dash Marshall we use film to jump to the end, help our partners refine their thinking about what kind of future they want, and then set about collaboratively developing the scaffolding needed to get there.

If you watch the film and come away with a pile of questions, then it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do. This kind of speculative design work is not a prediction. Instead it is intended to be part inspiration and part provocation, with just enough detail to give you a sense of how things might actually work that it raises the next five questions.

What if school kitchens were opened as commissaries for food truck entrepreneurs? Could other institutional spaces could take on a new life after hours? How would clever use of contracts and insurance help minimize risk?

What’s Next

The future rarely evolves as we expect it to, so with this film now being two years old there are sure to be parts that feel out of sync with today’s reality.

On the other hand, the vision of a city that fully embraces the Civic Commons is closer to being realized today than we could have imagined. Last June the City Council in Philadelphia approved Rebuild, a $300 million bond that will be used to improve parks and recreation centers city-wide. While the project makes its way through the usual bureaucracy and challenges, the initiative has 54% of the public behind it. That’s enough to remind us that our civic future is about much more than pop-ups and one-offs.

Bryan Boyer is co-founder of Dash Marshall, a design studio helping people reinvent institutions and urban environments, preferably at the same time.

Fire trucks and police cars are icons throughout the city, but what about the broader municipal fleet? What if those were emblazoned with unique graphics? What if the painting was done in collaboration with a local vocational school?

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